Material Life on the Hunter
By Dr Paula Jane Byrne
This work respectfully honours the First Australian People, the Aboriginal People of this land.
The Scott family arrived in the colony in 1822 and the Rusden family arrived in 1834. The families were linked when Saranna Rusden married Helenus Scott in 1835. The Scotts were granted land on the Hunter they would name Glendon and the Rusden family took up residence at a house rented from Houston Mitchell, Rath Luba at Maitland. In 1847 the Rusden family moved to Holmwood, also in Maitland. Charles and Fred Tindal were visitors at Merton, belonging to William Ogilvie and later managed a run on the Clarence belonging to Edward Ogilvie. The words and imagery these people used about the objects they lived with demonstrate the sensibility of a colonizing people.
Cooking and dining implements
Discussion of cooking and dining implements was common in the letters of landholders and squatters. These articles were thought about more than any other object, besides furniture. It is not as if they were marks of distinction, rather they were expected and, like servants, were an essential part of life. So we find very early in the history of Glendon in 1827, before the house was even built, Helenus wrote to his mother that ‘we have enough tablecloths’ (16 April 1827). Similarly after Helenus’ bankruptcy when the family was living in a small cottage, Saranna advertised for a man to work generally in the yard and also ‘to wait at table’ (3 June 1853). At Merton on the Hunter in 1844, Mrs Ogilvie was careful to order from London through Charles Tindal a specific kind of scissors for ‘cutting grapes at the table’ as well as a coffee percolator (6 July 1844).
Though landholders were likely to build quite large houses, the houses themselves were not great subjects of discussion. Furniture, however, provoked particular interest. The Ogilvie’s on the Clarence according to Fred Tindal
Live the most comfortably of any people on the river – the former give the visitors wine and ale, preserved fruits etc. they have a good library and luxurious Arm chairs.81 (Fred Tindal to his sister Lita, 28 August 1851)
One of the great concerns of Helenus Scott’s bankruptcy was that the furniture might be taken as part of the debt (Ann to Saranna, 7 August 1848).
Ann described a room of her own at Holmwood in 1847 decorated for her birthday by her children. Her room was “upstairs at the end of the landing place so the door is immediately before you at the top of the stairs. The window by which it is lighted is opposite the door and is the middle window at the front of the house”. She described the wallpaper, “green upon a stone-coloured ground”. She added that though the floral pattern “was not vine leaves” it did remind her of a pretty little room belonging to Mrs Jackson “when I visited her in Wimple St”, London (10 January 1847). To have wallpaper of vine leaves would have symbolised a link to classical taste, associated with Dionysus. The vine died and came back to life each year, demonstrating the power of that particular god to return people to life; the symbol of the vine was also linked to Christ and regeneration. The aristocratic Mrs Jackson did have vine leaves on her wallpaper, but even without them this room resembled hers.
All wallpaper was imported into the colony in this period. Arsenic was the major component of the green colour found in this example from the Smithsonian museum and all green colour in wallpaper of the 1840s derived from this dangerous substance.
Fred Tindal described Merton in 1844
“The principal room is the original hut, put up when they first came out, but now papered and made very comfortable – at the back of that two bedrooms have been added the rest of the house consists of two detached rooms one called the barracks where the young men sleep and the other a room for strangers – the kitchen and servant rooms are also detached, so that the whole looks like a township rather than a house. (28 December 1844).”
Wallpaper was a first step to making a house ‘comfortable’.
These were important objects to mention in letters. Books were obtained by the Rusden family from several different places. Some were posted from England by relatives or ordered from English booksellers. In the colony they were obtained from the Religious Tract Society in King Street Sydney.
In Maitland they were obtained at Lipscomb’s physic shop, originally a lending library as well as Deichman’s store. Whittaker’s Inn had regular auctions of books, possibly resulting from bankruptcy.
Male and Female
Hunter residents often surprise in their choice of interests or habits. Men around the Rusden family bought clothes for the women of the family.
“Your dear Papa surprised me yesterday by bringing from Robins a very pretty quiet looking muslin dress – the colours are lilac and green but so delicate that I was surprised he could get it there.” – Ann Rusden to Saranna Rusden, 8 December 1835
“Richard…returned from Sydney…and brought so many pretty things for us to see and admire. He insisted on getting us each something to wear on the day and this something was a very pretty flowered white gauze scarf, large enough for a mantilla for Grace, Georgiana and me so now we need not make a muslin pelerine for our dresses as we had meant to do…was it not bad of him?” (Rose Rusden to Saranna Scott, 2 August 1846.)
Men’s clothes, though work related, were tailored and often ordered from England rather than bought in the colony and they showed an interest in wearing clothes of quality, even on their Runs. George William Rusden begged his mother for the shirts that had been tailored specifically for him when he was working at Glendon with Helenus Scott.
“I am quite glad you have mentioned George William’s shirts – when I gave him the last, I told him he better have some of Thomas’s which are barely large enough for Thomas – but he assured me his own were preferable and earnestly begged to have them. I will send a dozen of Thomas’s new ones and some of George William’s socks, his dear father has ordered a pair of Parramatta trousers – all can be sent to him and George William’s shirts will do nicely for the little boys when they want any. ” (Ann Rusden to Saranna Scott, 23 March 1837.)
Men also showed considerable interest in flower gardening and jam making, particularly with native fruits. Arthur Selwyn wrote in 1874 to Rose:
“I want you to get for me a pair of gardening gloves, large and the thickest you can find, they ought to be red tanned leather, if you can get Hedger’s gloves. The garden is looking spring like. (Arthur Selwyn to Rose 17 September 1874.)
Charles Tindal wrote to England for ‘common English Bulbs’ – (Charles Tindal to Laura Tindal, 6 July 1844) and ‘Flower seeds’ (Charles Tindal to Harriet 10 January 1845) as well as ‘seeds, sweet peas and snowdrops’ – Charles Tindal to Father, 14 October 1846.
When women discussed flowers or plants they expressed interest in exotic plants the seeds and cuttings of which they exchanged among themselves. In Rose Selwyn’s drawing sent to the Rusden family in 1856 she shows with some detail the trumpet flower or Datura lily, imported from Rio de Janeiro.
Ann Rusden looked for native parasitic plants for Saranna and a Mrs Saunders presented Grace with seeds of a moonflower plant that originated in South America. (Georgiana Rusden to Saranna Scott, 11 March 1848).
The interest in these plants on the part of women was a scientific interest and women on the Hunter had considerable interest in scientific experimentation and new ideas. Mr Daly gave lectures involving volunteers, though the word ‘hypnosis’ was not used the reports of the lectures indicate that participants lost their will and performed various actions requested by Daly.
“Fifteen people concentrated on a small disk in their hands. Directed to shut their eyes and in spite of all their efforts were unable to open them until the lecturer willed it that they could do so. Another patient had his eyes and mouth closed at the will of the lecturer and was unable to repeat a syllable till Mr Daly had removed his magic influence.” (Geelong Advertiser, 26 March 1853).
Mr Daly had given a performance at West Maitland ‘to a crowded and fashionable audience’ according to Ann.
Part of the interest in science included phrenology or the examination of the shape of the skull to give information on personality traits. Arthur Selwyn, who was to marry Rose Rusden introduced the household to phrenology in 1851.
Ann Rusden wrote:
‘you know we have no piano now to vary our amusements so chess…and Phrenology have been our principal pursuits’ (Ann Rusden undated)
Chess was played by both men and women,
‘dear Grace being at home they have been able to muster strong enough for double chess … I can only play well enough, at the double game, to injure my partner, and assist the adversary’ (Ann Rusden 31 July 1850).
Attributes of what is male and female behaviour vary in time; Hunter men and women sometimes surprise in their interests and activities and this reminds us that the past is not easily predictable and our own tastes and understandings cannot be read back.
The whole of this culture, this way of managing household objects, games, clothing and plants colonized the Hunter. This begs the question where was violence situated in the colonial psyche?
Glendon and the town of Maitland are on Wonnarua country and Wonnarua have their own history of the region. https://wonnarua.org.au/about-us-page-2/
Hunter River Aboriginal people traveled widely in the region and throughout New South Wales. These people would have lived on Glendon and in the town of Maitland. These people are Awabakal https://www.awabakal.org/ and Worimi https://forster.storylines.com.au/
There are few references to Aboriginal people in the Scott and Rusden family letters. However, there is enough material to give some indication of non- Aboriginal cultural attitudes to violence.
For Ann Rusden violence was bound up with humour and puns.
In November 1837 she wrote:
The H.K’s [house keepers] send thanks for the rabbits, our feelings of tenderness do not pervade their breasts you will say –for when I said ‘are they to be kept or killed?’ the emphatic answer was ‘oh killed to be sure’
Killed was underlined three times and it is not clear exactly why this was thought important to do. Similarly, the younger Henry and Alfred had to overcome their ‘violent emotions’ after a parcel of presents arrived from Glenbrook and the violent was underlined. George William and his younger brother Thomas were thought of in October 1837:
‘I should have been instrumental to them committing murder on a cruel hawk who makes but too free with our poultry yard’.
When Grace was sketching the house at Glendon, she was, according to Ann ‘executing’ it and the ‘executing’ was underlined. Mr Walker Scott would exclaim, she wrote,
‘How barbarous, what a very improper employment for a young lady’.
This play on words appeared at a time where men from the extended family were moving north up the Hunter Valley and into more conflict with Aboriginal people.
Hilarity and pitilessness characterised the humour of the eighteenth century and we find it here in Ann’s play on words. It was a culture that enjoyed cruelty as entertainment.
In his descriptions of Aboriginal workers on Glendon in 1827 Helenus Scott wrote:
‘When they don’t fear you they are apt to be treacherous’
This language of treachery in relation to Aboriginal people would appear throughout the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century, however, here Helenus Scott was referring to his own workers and people he knew well – they had to be kept in fear.
How fear was obtained was explained by Fred Tindal.
Charles and Fred Tindal had been ‘asked to come to the Aboriginal camp near their house on the Clarence in 1851 to ‘see Corroborry to which we went’
Just before the music began two of them commenced fighting because one had received more bread than the other – after a short time the defeated one called out ‘you be off’ ‘Bel you stop here etc’. On asking him what he meant I found he was accusing the others of killing cattle – which they denied and crowded round us begged we should stop to see the Corrobory – but being satisfied that the informer told the truth we refused to stop, they were afraid of a hostile visit in the morning, so broke up their camp and dispersed – the traitor prudently returned with us not considering himself any longer safe with his old friends.
The hostile visit in the morning would have been a punitive raid where a sleeping camp of Aboriginal people were attacked.
In this account we see both the humour that Ann exhibits and the fear that Helenus Scott wrote about and we are part of the way to understanding the mentality of colonizing violence.
Dr Paula Jane Byrne
Dr Paula Jane Byrne is a Visiting Scholar at the State Library of New South Wales 2021 -2022. She is author of “Criminal Law and Colonial Subject”, (Cambridge, 1993) and editor of the Diaries and Letters of Ellis Bent, (Desert Pea 2012). She has lectured and held research positions at a number of Australian Universities. Email contact
For further information:
See Dr Byrne’s Presentation at the Hunter Living Histories August 2022 Showcase https://hunterlivinghistories.com/2022/07/29/hlh-aug2022/
See Dr Byrne’s Publication here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14759756.2021.2002022